Denying Communion to Someone

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Denying Communion to Someone

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is a priest (or for that fact, a deacon or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion) supposed to do in such an instant when it is common knowledge that someone presenting themselves to receive the Body of Christ is not in a state of grace? Can a person who is in an active homosexual relationship receive Communion? If a homosexual person is living a chaste and celibate life, is that person considered in a state of grace, as long as they are church-going and partake of the sacrament of reconciliation? Can a homosexual person in an active relationship serve as an extraordinary minister or other servant of the altar? — D.B., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 

A: Our reader mentioned that this question was inspired by a recent controversy regarding denial of Communion in the Archdiocese of Washington. Although this case has been widely commented on, I do not consider myself sufficiently informed of all the facts to add any specific statements other than to express the hope that the case will be eventually resolved and any misunderstandings clarified.

That said, I will try to address the question at hand.

First of all, it is incumbent upon each member of the faithful to assess if he or she is in a state of grace to receive Communion. In order to know this with reasonable moral certitude, the person must not be aware of having committed any grave sin that has not been confessed or of not being in a situation which would normally preclude being able to receive the sacrament such as, for example, an irregular marriage not recognized as valid by the Church.

In fulfilling his ministry the priest and even more so other ministers should habitually defer to the good faith of those who approach the sacrament.

Only God knows with absolute certainty a person's state of grace. The individual person can reach a reasonable moral certainty as to the present state of his soul. The priest usually has no knowledge as to a person's state of grace. Even if a priest knows that a certain person is a habitual sinner, he cannot know if, before coming for Communion, that person has repented, confessed and is striving to remedy his ways.

Even if the priest is practically certain that a person should not receive Communion and would be committing a sacrilege by doing so, he should not publicly refuse to administer the sacrament. No person, not even a grave sinner, should be publicly exposed for hidden faults. Everybody has a right to preserve his good name unless it is lost by the sinner's public actions or in virtue of a public penalty.

This is a very difficult situation for a priest to be in, but in this way he also shares in that same attitude which the Lord himself adopts in making himself available in the Eucharist. Only rarely will a priest be placed in such a difficult situation; the Eucharistic Lord faces it on a daily basis.

Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law indicates the principal cases in which Communion may be publicly refused. The canon says, "Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion."

The first case refers to those upon whom a canonical penalty of excommunication or interdiction has been publicly imposed for a grave canonical crime.

It does not refer to those who might have fallen under an automatic penalty (such as participating in an abortion) which is not known. Of course, people in this situation should not receive Communion until the excommunication is lifted, but the priest should not refuse the host even if he knows that the penalty exists.

The second situation, those obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin, is harder to determine and usually requires a case-by-case study. Even expert canonists disagree regarding the practical applications. But almost all are in accordance that the law should be narrowly interpreted and that all the factors — obstinate perseverance and manifestly grave sin — must be simultaneously present before Communion can be publicly denied.

It is difficult to determine if a grave sin is manifest. In order to be so, a sin must be known by a large part of the community, and this can also depend on the nature of the community itself. For example, it is one thing to belong to a quiet rural village where everybody knows everybody and another to be part of a large urban parish were a situation might be known only if it appears in the media.

Obstinate perseverance is also difficult to determine and usually requires that the priest has been able to converse with the sinner and has warned him to desist from receiving Communion until he ceases committing the sin.

Since both factors must be present the priest can only make this warning that Communion will be publicly refused when the sin is widely known and he has not received knowledge of it through the sacrament of reconciliation.

There might be cases when all of the factors are present by the manner in which a person approaches the altar. For example, several U.S. bishops have refused Communion to people wearing a rainbow sash. In this case the person is using a symbol that publicly defends a lifestyle that the Church holds to be gravely sinful.

There might be some other cases when a priest has to decide on the spur of the moment, for example, when a person is in an obviously altered state and is clearly not fully aware of what he is doing. Such cases have more to do with public order and respect for the Eucharistic species than making a judgment as to a person's interior state.

Another case is when a person is obviously not Catholic. Such situations most often arise at weddings and funerals. Many dioceses and parishes have prepared policies for such occasions and advise those attending regarding the conditions for receiving Communion in the Catholic Church. This serves as a reminder both to Catholics who might not be practicing their faith as well as to those who belong to other denominations and religions.

Finally, the Church distinguishes between a homosexual tendency and homosexual acts. While the tendency is disordered, it does not make the person a sinner — provided that he or she lives a chaste life. Indeed, there is no reason why such a person cannot reach a high level of sanctity.
A person who acts on the tendency commits a grave sin. With this in mind I think it is clear that actively homosexual persons should not receive Communion. The door of sacramental reconciliation, however, is always open to them when there is sincere repentance and purpose of amendment.

Anybody who because of any grave sin should not receive Communion should not engage in a ministry. There might be exceptions to this rule when dealing with a momentary fall from grace with no opportunity to confess before Mass. But there are not exceptions in the case of those who would be habitually excluded from reception.

* * *

Follow-up: Denying Communion to Someone [4-17-2012]

Related to the question of refusing someone Communion (see March 27) was one regarding the consequences of a person receiving unworthily: "A married man who left his wife and is living with another woman cannot receive the Eucharist. However, if he sinfully does so, is he excommunicated? If yes, and then he repents, what does he have to do to obtain reconciliation?"

Anybody who deliberately and knowingly receives Communion while in a state of mortal sin commits a further sin of sacrilege and disrespect toward Christ. Their spiritual situation is thus aggravated by a conscious act of defiance. The increase of grace that would normally accrue to a person receiving Communion is lost forever and indeed is transformed into further motive for condemnation.

However, they are not formally excommunicated. The path of sacramental reconciliation remains open.

When they confess their sins they must include not only the sin that first caused them to lose the life of grace but also the fact of unworthily receiving Communion.

In attributing the penance the priest should take this particular sin into account and may prescribe some specific act of Eucharistic reparation provided it can be carried out quickly and simply.

Here we are speaking about deliberate sin in receiving Communion. We do not refer to special cases when a person has momentarily fallen into sin and has not had the opportunity of confessing before a Mass in which he is obliged or reasonably expected to receive Communion. This could be the case of a priest, deacon or other minister who would normally have to take Communion before the whole assembly.

If this happens, then the person can make an act of perfect contrition, which necessarily implies the commitment of confessing at the earliest opportunity. The person in this case does not commit a sin by receiving Communion and actually grows in grace.

A reader from Japan asked: "An unrelated question: What are your thoughts about eye contact between the priest (or deacon or minister of holy Communion) and the communicant. I was taught that one should have eye contact. Having served some time in a cloistered community, I am no longer so sure. Perhaps there is no 'one right answer,' but I am keenly interested in your thoughts."

Honestly, I think that such an indication gives too much weight to the minister. His or her primary function is to make sure that the host is administered in a dignified manner, whether on the tongue or in the hand, and to make sure it is consumed.

The faithful approach the sanctuary to receive the Lord, not to meet the minister of holy Communion. Some will look at the minister; others will close their eyes as they receive on the tongue. If eye contact happens, then well and good, but I see no particular reason to strive to achieve it.

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